Corrections Appended.

Early on in Gabriele Koch’s research into sex work, she found that many of her initial beliefs were challenged by what she observed of the lives of Japanese sex workers. “I started grad school working on human trafficking and anti-trafficking policy,” she told the Justice, “but as I explored more in Tokyo and in Japan what the sex industry was, I realized that many of the women working in the Japanese industry seemed to challenge my assumptions about what sex work was.”

For the forty or so teachers and students gathered in Schwartz 103 on a Friday afternoon, Koch’s talk — titled “Producing Iyashi: Healing and Labor in Tokyo’s Sex Industry” — challenged their assumptions about sex and about Japan. During her talk, Koch opened a window into a complex aspect of Japanese culture, one that has important implications for how we understand events in Japanese history.

As Koch explained, the sex industry in Japan has a different function and meaning than in American culture. One of the sex workers Koch interviewed claimed that her customers “put all of their effort into their work, and when the exhaustion and stress become too much, once in a while they go to the sex industry and refresh themselves.” This concept of “refreshment” that sex workers are believed to provide is known as “iyashi,” or healing, and is essential to understanding the Japanese sex industry.

The key detail from these interviews, Koch explained, is that her Japanese informants believed “there was something that [male workers] need to be successful” in their professional careers. That something is the iyashi that sex workers provide. Koch argued that the Japanese view iyashi as essential because they believe it “replenishes [male workers’] productive capacities as laborers.”

One of the lines of evidence Koch used to support her argument is how, in the post World War II Japanese economy, Japanese companies would reward employees by sending them on what Koch described as “international sex tours.” Koch characterized this view of sex work as “the productive control of male energy through controlling male sexuality.”

Prof. Ellen Schattschneider (ANTH) who organized the talk, spoke in glowing terms of Koch’s scholarship. “I happened to meet Gabriele Koch at the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard,” she told the Justice, “[and] I was really impressed with her work.”

The Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard is where Gabriele Koch works as a postdoctoral fellow. At the institute, she is preparing a manuscript titled “Human Rights in Japan’s Libidinal Economy” for publication. The manuscript focuses on many of the ideas she articulated in her talk at Brandeis. She received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Michigan and is also beginning a new manuscript on surveillance and feminism in Japan.

Schattschneider emphasized that Koch’s talk was part of a weekly series of talks about Anthropology — the Brandeis Anthropology Research Seminar (BARS) series — which takes place every Friday at 2 p.m. in Schwartz Hall 103. These talks are free and open to the Brandeis community.

In fact, Schattschneider insisted that “it would be fantastic to get non-anthro students” to attend the talks because they discuss “very contemporary issues” and are relevant even to students who don’t formally study anthropology.

Gabriele Koch herself did not shy away from connecting her analysis of Japanese sex work to contemporary issues. In particular, her analysis of so-called comfort women in World War II stood out in terms of how Koch’s research can be applied to contemporary issues in today’s news.

Comfort women are what Japanese soldiers called the women they enslaved and forced into sex work during World War II. Koch views the comfort woman as an extremely violent, historical version of the iyashi concept.

Another contemporary issue that Koch focused on is the politics of whether sex work is considered “work” and, by extension, whether sex work should be given the political benefits afforded to other professions. Koch argued that Japanese gender roles play an integral role in ensuring that sex work in Japan isn’t recognized as a skilled profession.

In Japan, Koch observed that the traditional perception of women is that their “very nature, quote unquote, knows how to care for men.”

Sex work is considered an extension of this traditional gender role: much like the housewives of twentieth-century America were expected to support their husbands, sex workers in Japan are seen as supporting their male clients. Because sex work is considered an extension of traditional gender roles, it isn’t considered labor for the same reason that being a stay-at-home mother isn’t considered a career.

During Koch’s interview with the Justice, she emphasized the difficulty of talking about sex in relation to a foreign country like Japan.

“Often in the media there’s ‘Japan is weird’ stories, ... [and] in a lot of the reporting on Japan, there’s a great deal of exoticization,” Koch elaborated. “I do work with sex workers; people are going to have assumptions about the work or about them.”

“All I can do,” she said, “is really accurately report and try to show people their realities.”

— Kirby Kochanowski contributed reporting.

An earlier version of this article stated that Koch studies prostitution and observed the lives of Japanese prostitutes. Koch in fact studies sex work and observed the lives of Japanese sex workers. 

The article falsely stated that Koch argued male clients visit sex workers to revitalize themselves and their productivity. In fact, Koch argued that this was merely what sex workers perceived as their clients' motivation.

An earlier version of this article misstated that sex work in Japan is not recognized as a profession. In fact, it is not recognized as a skilled profession. 

An earlier version of this article stated that Japanese companies would reward productive employees by sending them on what Koch described as "national sex tours." Koch in fact said, "international sex tours."

An earlier version of this article stated that Koch said "there's a great deal of orientalization." Koch in fact said, "there's a great deal of exoticization."